Published: Feb. 12, 2020 By

Jori Lewis by Laylah Amatullah BarraynThe CEJ Scripps Fellowship has been bringing award-winning environmental journalists to CU Boulder for 21 years. Fellows embark on a year of courses, projects, field trips, seminars and more -- taking advantage of everything university life has to offer. This series is a chance to get to know this year’s cohort of talented journalists beyond what a typical bio page will tell you. 

Jori Lewis is an independent journalist who writes about science, the environment, agriculture and sustainable development. She was born in downstate Illinois, studied anthropology at the University of Chicago and received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley. From 2011-2012, she was a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs where she wrote about food systems and agriculture in Senegal and she has been based in that country ever since. Jori’s work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Pacific Standard, Hakai, PRI’s The World and the Virginia Quarterly Review, among others. She is currently finishing her first book, Slaves for Peanuts (The New Press), a narrative history that tells the captivating story of how peanut agriculture supported the rise and fall of slavery in nineteenth-century West Africa.

1. Why did you choose to cover environmental topics and is there any memory that stands out as formative in your decision?

I went to journalism school at the University of California Berkeley and it's a two-year program so during my time there I did this pretty big project on climate change. That was one aspect of it. I was already sort of drawn to these topics, and even my master's project at the time was about farming so you can kind of see the seeds of the rest of my career. I was interested in thinking about how people interact with their environments and how to bring these types of stories to a broader public in a way that was legible.

2. What do you think is the most important environmental story happening today?

It feels like everything is so important. There's climate change, of course, but then the question is, can climate change really be separated out from a multiplicity of other kinds of problems or is that the overarching one? I feel a little overwhelmed just thinking about it, to be honest. But maybe the advantage of environmental reporting is that it can be so broad. It's really everything.

Jori Lewis by Daouda Corera3. What has been the most helpful part of the Scripps Fellowship so far?

I've been really enjoying having access to a large research library so I can get a lot -- although not everything -- of what I need. It’s super helpful to have access to research publications, books, old manuscripts, and dissertations: all the things that I need to finish my book and research any future projects. I have been living in Senegal for so long where there are only a handful of libraries -- even at the university level -- so this is really exciting for me.

Most faculty members that I've met have been curious and interesting and there doesn't seem to be so much ego posturing like I’ve seen at other institutions. People are nicer and more laid-back here.

4. What are your favorite things to do outside of journalism?

I've been taking this dance class that I love. It’s heavy on technique, so I feel like I’m learning and having fun. I do a lot of yoga. And I have a meditation group that’s really helping me kind of integrate myself here. I like to cook. And I spend a lot of time at the used book store down the street, buying novels I don’t have time to read. 

5. What is one rule or strategy of environmental reporting you find particularly important?

There are a few things. I think you have to have a good grasp of like the mechanisms that are happening in whatever environmental topic that you’re covering. If it's pollution, how does that particulate or toxic chemical move in the environment; if it's conservation, what are the biggest ideas about evolutionary biology or how do communities relate to conservation programs? So, have a good grasp of those ideas, but also don't be afraid to ask dumb questions so you can get the dumb or simple answers, because it's the simple answers you need in your piece to explain it to a general audience.